Chapter 5 – The Chain of Hunger
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Aki woke up the day following his tea tirade in a rather groggy mood. His robes seemed to clean themselves and were rather comfortable, so he hadn’t used any other clothing yet. Not like he owned any anyways, the robe was the only piece of clothing he had found in the residence so far.

He lazily walked to his washing basin and studied his face. Did I have those white hairs before? Maybe cultivators do show some signs of age.

His breakfast was already prepared in the courtyard, so he only needed to heat up some water and prepare his morning tea. Breakfast was some rather hard bread with what appeared to be some salmon arrayed on top. The nostalgia of the taste almost brought tears to his eyes. At least here in magical cultivation land, some staple foods from home remained.

Passionate Seeker soon arrived to give her morning report. Aki had deemed it prudent to arrange for her to visit the residence at set intervals so that she would be available when needed; He couldn’t currently leave the residence without her after all. She waited at the door for Aki to finish eating his meal, and then approached after giving a proper bow.

“Master, disciple Passionate Seeker offers greetings. Sect matters have been handled as expected, here is a jade slip containing details.”

She placed a jade slip on the table before continuing.

“The only matter of note for today is that outer sect disciple Watchful Owl will be starting her Chain of Hunger breakthrough attempt.”

Aki placed the jade slip he had begun to study back onto the table and turned an interested gaze towards his apprentice. This seemed to be something interesting.

“Disciple Watchful Owl? Please remind me of the details.”

“Very well master. Disciple Watchful Own managed to stitch together her foundation and reach core weaving two months ago. Her body cultivation had also already previously reached the second realm. She passed her inner sect entrance trial by fire last week and has since been preparing for her breakthrough attempt.”

Aki had much to learn about cultivation, so he decided that something like this was well worth investigating.

“Apprentice, it would not do to let her make the attempt without us being in attendance. Let us set off.”

 

Passionate Seeker had been curious about why Aki kept relying on her for transportation, but once he explained that it was part of his studies into the essence of mortality, she had nodded with understanding.

Their journey to the outer sect passed without incident, but instead of going to the fields they had previously been at, they headed towards a pavilion that was set just before the grand gate leading to the inner sect, still on the side of the outer sect. As they neared the pavilion, Aki felt something begin to press against him, first weakly, but gradually growing in strength as they neared the pavilion. The winds around them grew stronger until it felt like a forming storm. Passionate Seeker grimaced.

“Great, looks like Elder Raging Waters is here.”

Another elder? This will be the first one I’ll be seeing. Is what’s going on around us his domain?

As they landed, a huge, wild looking man walked out of the pavilion, briskly striding towards them. He was wearing robes similar to Aki’s, but the man was a lot more muscular. His long grey hair flowed freely in the wind. He was visibly displeased.

“Elder Thousand Lakes, I had hoped to run into you here. I am in need of an explanation for that stunt you pulled. Are you trying to get back at me?”

As the storm grew more intense around him Aki grew concerned. Have I done something to piss this guy off? I haven’t been here a week and have barely left my residence! Is it something the real elder Thousand Lakes did?

Aki tried his best to smile amiably amidst the storm, and calmly asked.

“Whatever incident do you mean?”

The veins on the huge man’s forehead visibly bulged, and Aki was sure he heard faint crackles of lightning in the storm. The man almost began to roar.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know! My son’s formation carvings were far superior to any of the others in the competition, and you still ruled that mediocre piece as the winner!”

Aki’s mind blanked. Ah, that. Yes, I did kind of just randomly pick a winner for that contest. So, I’ve already managed to offend a young master, have I? I’m the sect leader! Why do I have to deal with offending an outer sect disciple of my own sect?!

The pressure on Aki grew ever more intense and he struggled to maintain a semblance of dignity. His hair and robe were waving around wildly as storm pelted at him. He had a suspicion as to the individual responsible. There had been that one disciple with a distinctly young master -like sneer at the contest. He could have at least decried the results at once like a proper young master. Then I could have dealt with it immediately instead of being ambushed like this. Now, how should I deal with this?

Aki decided to try and settle the matter diplomatically. He didn't quite manage to reach his trademark sagely confidence, only succeeding at a nervous smile.

“Fellow elder, do not worry, it was for the betterment of your son that I chose the results as I did.”

The elder did not look pleased but the storm lulled for a moment as he waited for Aki to elaborate.

“Your son... I have some grave concerns regarding his cultivation. Did you know that he was so shocked by the loss that he spit out blood? He actually spit out blood! That is a dire omen indicating the presence of heart devils. Another victory would have set him irreversibly on a treacherous path.”

The elder still did not look pleased. He narrowed his eyes and spoke in a cold voice.

“You presume much to take matters of my son’s education into your hands without my consultation. Don’t grow arrogant in your position, or measures will have to be taken”

Having calmed down a bit, he suddenly blinked around in confusion for a moment, before his eyes again narrowed and his gaze turned even more frosty.

“You. You haven’t used even one bit of your domain to contest mine. Are you mocking me? Just how much are you trying to make me lose face? This is a waste of time.”

Before Aki could attempt to give an explanation, the man flew off into the sky, the remains of the storm following him out.

Well, that could have gone better. Still, I think that was an acceptable result.

Aki noted that his robes seemed to be drying unnaturally rapidly, leaving only his skin and hair dripping wet. He noticed that Passionate Seeker, who was gazing at him reverently with shining eyes, was not one bit wet. So much for my dignity as an aloof master... Or perhaps this is one of those things that makes me seem more mysterious?

Remembering the purpose he had come here for, Aki turned to the Pavilion. It was a simple wooden structure with barely any decorations. It had a prominent position in the rocky passage, being set right in the middle of it. After stepping inside, he was surprised to find that there were barely any people in attendance. In the middle of the pavilion, a plain, middle-aged looking woman in outer sect robes sat meditating. The only other person in attendance was his core disciple, Spring Melt. She sat behind a small table, watching the meditating disciple with one eye, while with the other eye she stared at what appeared to be a cup of disturbingly thin tea. She seemed to be manipulating some sort of water weave with one hand, while with the other she was twirling her braid around using a fine spoon. Noticing his entrance, she abruptly stopped it all to stand up and offer her greattings.

“Greetings master, younger sister. I am surprised that you arrived in person. A great honour for her. May I offer you two some tea?”

Aki glanced at the disturbingly thin tea, then quickly declined. Have I ruined my chance to enjoy good tea whenever I am in her presence? I knew that this would get out of hand. Hopefully she gets bored once she realizes there is no actual [Infinite Tea] Technique. Aki sat down, managing to somehow seem dignified despite being dripping wet. He eyed the lonely meditating disciple curiously.

Why is she alone at a moment like this? Shouldn’t her friends be here to watch such a momentous occasion? Aki had noticed some disciples milling about near the pavilion grounds on various errands, so it did not seem like coming here was forbidden or anything.

His musings were interrupted as the disciple opened her eyes. She picked out a pill of some sort from her pocket and ate it with grim determination. She then rose up to give a formal bow.

“Elder, your presence is a great honour, I shall begin my attempt now.”

“Proceed at will disciple. I pray for your fortune.”

After Aki had replied the woman sat back down into a meditating posture, and Qi strands started swirling around her, growing in intensity. It felt like there was some sort of shift in the air, and then the woman suddenly grew extremely emaciated. Earlier she had been the picture of health, but now she suddenly turned into little more than skin and bones, as if she had not eaten anything for months.

She begun to sweat intensely and tremble while grimly gritting her teeth.

Aki shuddered at the sight but noticed that both other observers were not treating the matter with any special concern. Passionate Seeker had quietly asked Spring Melt a few questions about her tea, and after receiving answers had begun to furiously write into her notebook. This kind of display is normal? These tribulations sure don’t mess around. Aki decided that he should get more knowledge on the topic.

“Apprentice Passionate Seeker, a quick knowledge test. Briefly summarise everything you know about the chain of hunger.”

Passionate Seeker snapped to attention from her notebook, and after a few moments of thought briskly replied.

“The chain of hunger is the second of the five chains of mortality which bind mortal cultivators. Its tribulation can be attempted once both spiritual and physical cultivation have reached the second realm. The tribulation consists of intense hunger and exhaustion assaulting the cultivator for two days and two nights. If their resolve breaks at any point during that time, they will die. If the tribulation is surpassed, the cultivator no longer needs to eat or sleep. Success also grants them 200 years of longevity.”

Hmm, a fearsome tribulation indeed, which explains many things. Still, that last bit reminded me of something, I’ll have to look into this more.

“What about the first chain of mortality, apprentice?”

It seemed like Passionate Seeker already had an answer prepared, as she instantly answered.

“The first chain of mortality is the chain of blindness, which stops mortals from sensing or affecting Qi. Breaking through it is the first step on the path to cultivation. In order to break the chain, mortals are generally infused with Qi, causing the struggle against the chain to start. They must withstand the wealth of extra information flowing into them, with failure leading to permanent blindness. Passing through the tribulation grants 50 years of longevity.”

Aki began to gather his thoughts, as a grim suspicion began to gnaw at him. He noted that the meditating woman had at this point stopped trembling, seeming to enter into some kind of trance. She however continued looking just as emaciated as before. Spring Melt had turned back to fiddling with a weave of Qi as she concentrated on her cup of tea.

I can sense and affect Qi, meaning that I am definitely not bound by the first chain of mortality. However, I still need to eat and sleep, meaning that I am currently bound by the chain of hunger.

Aki began to run the numbers in his head. His grim suspicion grew.

“Apprentice, what is the lifespan of someone who has broken only the first chain of mortality?”

Passionate Seeker gave Aki a strange look, but eventually answered.

“150 years, master.”

“Apprentice, what happens to someone living beyond those limits?”

“Without rare pills or special techniques, they will quickly begin to waste away towards death.”

“Now, dearest apprentice, a last question. As a small test of familiarity. How old am I currently?”

This time she answered instantly, confidently slamming her notebook onto the table.

“You reached 223 summers this year, master.”

Aki remembered the white hairs he had spotted during his morning wash and was pretty sure they had not been there previously. The grim suspicion grew into a dread that grasped him wholesale. He watched the struggling disciple in front of him with growing horror, as he started to realize that he might need to get very, very serious about figuring out this whole cultivation business.

 

I might be in a slight spot of trouble.

Thank you for reading!

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